A dramatic rescue mission is in the offing on Nanga Parbat, where alpinists Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard are overdue and may be stranded above 6,300 meters (20,670 ft) on the mountain. The duo is attempting a winter ascent of the demanding Mummery Ridge route on the world’s ninth-highest mountain.

Pakistani climber Muhammad Ali Sadpara is standing by for a rescue attempt. Thursday morning (Wednesday evening in North America) he’ll be airlifted to the Mummery Ridgde and begin searching for the lost climbers, if weather and military constraints permit. Ali Sadpara made the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat in 2016 with Simone Moro and Alex Txikon, but he’s only one man, and is not acclimated.

Help could come from K2, about 115 miles northwest of Nanga Parbat. Txikon is on K2 with a strong team of Sherpa climbers, as is a large Russian/Kazakh/Kyrgyz team.

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“According to me for this rescue mission a strong team is needed, and the K2 winter teams are world class and acclimatized already,” Ali posted on Facebook Wednesday evening Pakistani time. “They also want to come if weather will be clear tomorrow in K2 areas.”

Weather is always a factor in the high mountains, particularly in winter. But in this case, the rescue is further complicated by heightened military tensions between India and Pakistan, both of which claim the region as their own. This week they traded airstrikes across the so-called Line of Control (LoC), and yesterday Pakistan claimed to have shot down two Indian fighter jets that crossed the line. Tensions are at a historic high and could limit rescue flights.

The situation is eerily reminiscent of a crisis 13 months ago on Nanga Parbat, when Elisabeth Revol and Tomasz Mackiewicz were stranded high on the mountain after reaching the summit in alpine style. In that case, a team of climbers from the Polish Winter K2 expedition was ferried to Nanga Parbat on Pakistani Army helicopters. Adam Bielecki and Denis Urubko climbed through the night of January 26-27, 2018, and brought Revol down. They were unable to reach Mackiewicz, who perished.

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Nardi and Ballard were last heard from on Sunday, February 24, when Nardi communicated with his wife using a Thuraya satellite device. Their last communication with base camp was Friday, February 22, when they reported they were descending from to Camp 3 at 6,300 meters. “Since then there has been no communication whatsoever with both the climbers. There is no movement on the slopes as the support staff at Base Camp is looking for them using binoculars,” according to a statement from their support team. The weather on Nanga Parbat has been bad since February 22, and the political situation adds another layer of complication. “Given the circumstances of extremely serious clashes going on the Line of Control (LoC) between Pakistan and India at the moment, military assets aren’t readily available at the moment to help in this rescue.”

Nardi, 42, is an extremely experienced winter alpinist who has made three previous attempts to climb Nanga Parbat in winter. In 2016 he climbed with Ali Sadpara and Txikon, but left the mountain before their historic first ascent. Ballard, 31, is best known as a mixed-climber, having soloed the six great north faces of the Alps in a single winter season. He is the son of Allison Hargreaves, first to solo those six faces in summer and the second person, after Reinhold Messner, to scale Everest solo and without supplementary oxygen, in 1995. She died later that season on K2.

UPDATE: Thursday Feb 28, 2:00 p.m. PST: On the second of two reconnaissance flights today, the Pakistani climber Muhammad Ali Sadpara observed signs of recent avalanche and fragments of an orange tent inundated with snow and ice in the vicinity of Nardi and Ballard’s Camp 3 at about 5,700 meters (18,700 feet). When last heard from Sunday afternoon, the climbers were some 300 meters above Camp 3 on the Mummery Spur route. Rescuers are hopeful that they continued higher on the spur, and may have traversed left to the standard Kinshofer Route which is partially equipped with fixed ropes and would provide a safer descent route given the apparent avalanche risk on the Mummery route.

At 7 a.m. local time Friday morning (6 p.m. Thursday PDT), weather permitting, a pair of Pakistani Army helicopters will fly to K2 base camp and ferry four members of the Russian/Kazakh/Kyrghiz expedition, including team leader Vassily Pivtsov, to Nanga Parbat. The rescuers will be dropped as high as possible, in order to explore the upper reaches of the Mummery Spur, according to Il Secolo XIX (Italian).

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Photo by Daniele Nardi via Facebook


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